MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin has no intention of delaying a state mandate for insurance coverage on the state’s exchange beyond March 31, despite a more vocal and organized push by Republican legislative leaders.
Republican minority leaders Rep. Don Turner and Sen. Joe Benning are asking Shumlin to delay the requirement for individuals and small businesses to purchase insurance on Vermont Health Connect for all of 2014. Vermont is the only state to mandate coverage on an exchange.
The GOP leaders seized on President Barack Obama’s presidential-sized mea culpa Thursday. In a White House news conference, the president announced an “administrative fix” to allow insurance plans canceled under Obamacare to be reinstated for one year.
The president had repeatedly said Americans would be able to keep their health care plans if they wanted to, but millions across the country received cancellation notices because their plans do not meet the more stringent coverage requirements under the law. The administrative fix will still allow states to determine what insurance plans are offered.
The cancellations were only exacerbating angst over the technical problems on exchange sites. Vermont Health Connect, like the federal site serving 36 states, has been plagued by technical issues since its Oct. 1 launch. The problems have prevented some people from completing applications, and payment is still not possible on the Vermont site.
Despite Obama’s announcement, Shumlin, after consulting the state’s two insurance carriers — Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont and MVP Health Care — said there will be no further changes in Vermont.
Shumlin had already extended the state-level mandate requiring individuals and small businesses to purchase insurance coverage on Vermont Health Connect to March 31. That means current insurance plans can be extended into the new year.
Turner and Benning plan to continue pushing Shumlin and Democrats in the Legislature for a full year extension of current insurance plans. They fired off a letter to Shumlin on Thursday asking him to follow Obama’s lead.
“It is obvious that the system now intended to connect Vermonters to their new health insurance is not fully operational. None of us are sure of when it will be so. Too many Vermonters, now with insurance, are needlessly anxious about whether they will be able to retain any insurance at all while the system is fixed. The system should be fully operational before mandates are applied,” they wrote.
Turner said Friday that legislation seeking a one-year delay is being introduced in both the House and Senate in case Shumlin does not act. The bills are unlikely to be considered in the Democrat-dominated Legislature, though.
“Our goal is that the governor takes the action that he’s already taken. We’d prefer not to go through legislation since the governor appears to have that authority,” Turner said. “If that doesn’t happen then we have introduced some bills … that (do) just that.”
Shumlin has not responded to the GOP leaders directly, according to Turner. Shumlin spokeswoman Susan Allen issued a statement brushing aside their request.
“The Governor has made clear that he will not allow a situation where Vermonters are in danger of going without health insurance. Two weeks ago he announced that small businesses and individuals will be able to extend their current plans to March 31st, 2014 if they are frustrated with Vermont Health Connect or want more time to assess their options. He remains confident that is a responsible course of action,” she said in a written statement.
Allen indicated the latest request by Turner and Benning was politically motivated.
“It’s not surprising that those who voted against health care reform are still against health care reform. And it’s not surprising that they are more interested in looking for ways to undermine and derail reform than working constructively to make this federally-mandated law work for Vermont,” Allen said.
Not so, Turner said. The GOP leaders are not looking to undermine Vermont’s exchange. Rather, they are hoping the system can be perfected over the next year while Vermonters are allowed to keep their current health plans, he said.
“We’re not trying to mess with the law,” Turner said. “The law is the law. We’ve had the debate. Let’s move on.”
Turner said state law already requires hospitals to treat patients whether they have insurance or not.
But Vermonters could find themselves unable to obtain prescriptions if insurance were to somehow lapse because of the exchange’s failures, he said.
“When you go to the pharmacy they expect your insurance card or payment,” Turner said.
Darcie Johnston, who heads Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, is also pushing for a one-year delay. Turner said his efforts are independent from Johnston, a Republican who has been an outspoken critic of health care reform efforts.
“We’re not working with anyone,” he said. “I’m not tied to Darcie. I’m not in her group. I’m not a member.”
Johnston said her group supports the legislative effort to obtain a one-year delay.
“We’re grateful for Don and the caucus and for Sen. Benning’s efforts. We’ll support them and believe it’s helpful for what we’re doing,” she said. “I think we’ve led the effort to try to get a one-year extension. We think that’s what will serve Vermonters the most as far as protecting their health care.”
Johnston said her group hopes to turn its focus to the cost of insurance plans on the state exchange.
“As much as I want to move on to how unaffordable these plans are … I don’t think we can until the payment piece on Dec. 1 either works or doesn’t work,” she said.
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